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Not Like Others

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Chelsea Films
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Directed by: 
Peter Pontikis
Jenny lampa
Ruth Vega Fernandez
David Dencik
Omid Khansari
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 The porcelain-skinned Vera (Jenny Lampa) and her slightly more ordinary sister Vanja (Ruth Vega Fernandez) are sibling vampires who pound the empty streets of night time Stockholm looking for parties to crash and bars to haunt, while Vera is also always on the look-out for a quick and easy kill to feed the two girls’ addiction to blood.  While disconsolately ‘hanging’ at a smoky dive bar nightclub one night, Vera is assaulted by a member of the tattooed biker gang who crash the joint, and she takes the opportunity to ‘make a meal of him’ in the dingy club toilets, leaving his blood-drained body for his pals to find. Both Vera and Vanja then find themselves on the run, hunted through the neon-lit, rain sodden streets by the rest of the vengeance-fuelled gang while they struggle to come to terms with what could be an even greater problem: Vanja has fallen in love and wants to move away to start a new life among ordinary people. She is already attempting to eat proper food and find ways to feed her blood addiction that won’t bring her unnecessarily to the attention of society at large. But Vera cannot believe that she could be left to live out an already remote existence completely alone -- and over the course of one cold and dark night, she seeks to persuade her sister to reconsider while the two continue to attempt to outdistance the menacing gang who relentlessly seek them. Nevertheless, the bikers seem only to be getting closer and closer as the lonely night wears on.    

Peter Pontikis’ gritty tale of two sisters’ solitary life of urban vampirism on the rain-soaked streets of Stockholm, can’t help but invoke the shadow of its much revered Swedish cousin “Let the Right One In”, although the link proves both a help and a hindrance, since, although it is undoubtedly the buzz from  Tomas Alfredson’s film adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel which has helped bring this brooding, reflective drama to the attention of the horror community, the two films really  have only their shared downbeat approach to the subject of vampirism in common; beyond that “Not Like Others” (its Swedish title was originally “Vampyrer”) brokers none of the rich lyrical undercurrent of Gothic fantasy that lies buried at the root of Alfredson’s grim contemporary vision of suburban Stockholm. If there is perhaps a more suitable comparison point, it has to be George A. Romero’s “Martin”: Both films share an equivocal attitude as to the ultimate supernatural nature of its protagonists’ dependency on vampirism; and like Martin, the girls use a sharp blade to make their desperate kills -- though Jenny Lampa’s character Vera, prefers to accomplish the fatal act via a swift jab with a pen knife to the jugular rather than Martin’s method of opening the wrist veins of his victims with a razor.

But even the comparison of Romero’s “Martin” doesn’t quite capture the almost incidental, symbolic role that the girls’ vampirism actually plays in the film’s slow-burning, realist approach to its narrative.  The movie, a close study of the twin themes of mutual dependency and social isolation, plays out against a desolate backdrop of empty streets veiled in freezing fog or torrential rain, that soon take on an austerely stylized relevance to the social drama unfolding between the two girls, and end up carrying the film down the byways of arthouse poeticism rather than the docudrama vérité mode of Romero’s film -- despite the shaky handheld camera style and a Dogme 95-like tendency towards a reliance on natural lighting from street lamps or the shop and office block windows already to be found in and around the environs of its filming locations. The film is shot entirely at night on fuzzy looking digital video that makes many of the muddier scenes look like they were first captured on a phone camera and then transferred to a water-damaged VHS cassette that’s been left festering on a dusty shelf for ten years. This is all in keeping with the film’s very precise and deliberate aesthetic modesty -- presenting a tale of casual murder, sibling estrangement and an outsider’s desperate desire to belong in the world in as offhand a manner as is possible, while still aspiring to a modicum of poetic sensibility, expressed by the harsh melancholia at the base of its icy existential outlook.

 “Not Like Others” has an awful lot going for it in terms of its nicely stoked atmosphere of wintery isolation and in its evocation of the empty loneliness in the nocturnal life of a big city, which Pontikis manages to conjure up beautifully with his very consistent adherence to the film’s clinically stylised urban Mise-en-scene, with its empty sodium-lit streets and towering concrete overpasses. You see no one in the exterior shots of Stockholm apart from the shadowy leather-clad biker gang obliquely stalking the protagonists for much of the movie, or the occasional nameless individual who may accidently enter their world, such as a taxi driver who propositions Vera or the hospital worker who nearly catches Vanja sealing blood supplies. But other than a few rare instances of fleeting human interaction, there is no one else. It’s as if the world were elsewhere, the lit up windows of offices and the impassive facades of buildings suggest a life going on somewhere high up in tower blocks or in the lighted windows of the speeding trains passing regularly over the viaducts overhead, but it’s a life that seems forever to exclude the two girls, as if they were incorporeal ghosts. When Vera and Vanja try to interact in nightclubs or at an indoor party they gate-crash in order to steal wallets from the socialising revellers, their existence is barely acknowledged by those around them, if at all. The closest they get to a non-violent engagement with their fellow Stockholmians comes when being shooshed by the sole other patron of a midnight screening of “Night of the Living Dead” they attend, or when being reminded they’re not allowed to smoke in the foyer by the cinema’s bored receptionist.

However, the film’s brooding seriousness of tone and the quiet, non-flashy development of its two protagonist’ emotional estrangement doesn’t really catch the imagination with quite the immediacy the film requires to shoot it into the same orbit as its more famous Nordic vampire-based partner -- although Lampa and Fernandez are utterly convincing in their roles. The story tends to meander in the middle section, with it being unclear what metaphorical role the vengeful biker gang are really fulfilling in this existential drama – perhaps they’re meant to invoke Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de soufflé, providing the same function in the narrative as the police who hunt the criminal protagonist of Godard’s film who romances his American girlfriend instead of making good his escape. For Vera and Vanja also seem to waste time wandering aimlessly through empty streets while their pursuers move ever closer; and Vanja even ends up deliberately courting their attentions in order to bond herself more closely to her sister in hope of stopping her from leaving to attempt another life in the world at large. The film does evolve by its conclusion into a mildly touching story of ultimate sacrifice, although Vanja’s apparent romance (which she’s managed to keep entirely secret from her sister for some time, despite the fact that they never seem ordinarily to leave each other’s side) never really convinces, and the scenes at the very end in which she meets her supposed lover at a train station are weak, throw away and ill-advised.

Nevertheless, this is a promising first feature for director and writer Pontikis and gets a solid, no-thrills release in the UK by Chelsea Films, with a solid transfer and a decent 5.1 Swedish language audio mix with English subtitles, as well as a 2.0 Swedish Stereo option.

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